"Spastic" and a different kind of "word crime"

« previous post | next post »

Weird Al Yankovic's new song "Word Crimes" has generated a lot of heated discussion among linguists and other descriptivist types who didn't take kindly to its litany of language peeves — satire or no satire. (See my original post and Lauren Squires' guest post for extended commentary.) But in detailing various "word crimes," Weird Al managed to commit a linguistic foul of his own. And no, I'm not talking about the split infinitive at the end of the song ("Try your best to not drool"). Weird Al assured his Twitter followers that the line was an intentional bit of trolling:

[Update: In an interview on the Grammarly blog, Weird Al further elaborates: "I purposely left a split infinitive at the end of my song ... to be ironic, and also to see how many online grammar pedants it would annoy."]

The "word crime" in the song had nothing to do with prescriptivist canards. Instead, it was Weird Al's use of the word spastic:

Saw your blog post
It's really fantastic
That was sarcastic
'Cause you write like a spastic

Here is Weird Al's heartfelt apology:

The apology may be in response to various online objections, mostly from British commenters. See, for instance, comments on Reddit (in turn responding to comments on Tumblr), Pharyngula, and 16 Kinds.

This is all highly reminiscent of an incident I wrote about on Language Log back in 2006, when Tiger Woods was taken to task by the British press for saying in a post-round interview at the Masters Tournament that he played like a "spaz." After a flurry of criticism, Tiger apologized, issuing a statement that he "meant nothing derogatory to any person or persons and apologizes for any offense caused."

As I explain in the 2006 post, spaz and the longer form spastic have "become innocuous playground slang in the U.S. but a grave insult in the U.K." I provide some history for that divergence of usage and conclude:

For someone like Tiger Woods who came of age in the '80s… the American usage of spaz had long lost any resonance it might have had with the epithet spastic. This is not the case in Great Britain, however, where both spastic and spaz evidently remain in active usage as derogatory terms for people with cerebral palsy or other disabilities affecting motor coordination. A BBC survey ranked spastic as the second-most offensive term for disabled people, just below retard… The BBC attributes the British resurgence of the epithet to publicity in the early '80s surrounding a man with cerebral palsy named Joey Deacon, particularly his appearance on the children's television show Blue Peter in 1981. The word spaz and other variants like spazmo became firmly connected with Deacon among British youth, according to the BBC report.

All of this helps explain the reaction Tiger's comments engendered in the U.K. press. It would be helpful for British golf fans (and activists for the disabled) to know, however, that… he was no doubt oblivious to the cultural resonances the term might have had across the Pond.

Weird Al, too, missed out on these cultural resonances. (For more, see the Wikipedia entry for spastic, which cites my Language Log post, and Lynne Murphy's post on her Separated by a Common Language blog.) But he was swiftly made aware of the potential for offense and just as swiftly apologized in a forthright manner. If linguists do indeed use "Word Crimes" as a teaching tool, the debate over spastic can serve as an illuminating example of cross-cultural miscommunication and its repair.

Share:



87 Comments »

  1. ADM said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 10:38 am

    Good for him to apologize so forthrightly despite not really being "guilty" of anything. Once while traveling, I was discussing with some Brits the differences between our versions of English, and I mentioned "spaz" as an example, and even saying it in that context clearly offended them. To Americans, it's essentially a meaningless word. My understanding is Brits still use a three-letter term for cigarettes that is highly offensive to Americans. I wouldn't expect them to apologize to us every time they use it. A few more incidents like this over "spas" and perhaps it'll drop out of American usage to, deemed too offensive by proxy.

  2. ADM said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 10:39 am

    * ",too" :-)

  3. Lazar said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 10:57 am

    I've had to mediate some online misunderstandings between American and British people on this point.

    But #1 on my list of "trans-Atlantic differences that tend to induce total confusion" is the British habit of respelling the phoneme /ɑː/ as "ar". I've seen so many pronunciation discussions derailed when a British person uses an "ar" respelling – typically the American participants will react with bewilderment at such a crazy pronunciation (not making the logical leap that oh, "ar" would be like "ah" to them), while the British participants, for their part, fail to see how anyone could misinterpret such a plainly sensible respelling. This is why most North Americans (mis)pronounce the band Sade as "Shar-day": it said so right on their albums.

  4. djw said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 11:11 am

    I grew up in Texas in the '50s and '60s, and "spaz" or "spastic" had the same meaning there that it does in British English now. I never seemed to have much use for it then or since, but when I saw cerebral palsy first hand, I knew I'd never use it again. I appreciate Al's apology, and I hope others learn from it.

  5. David Beaver said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    Weird Al doesn't exactly have a reputation for politically correct delicacy to maintain. His 1988 "Fat" (anthem for fat pride or making fun of fat people? ) includes the line "I've got more chins than Chinatown"… multiply ambiguous (facial feature, surname, shortened "chink") and close to the edge, but Al obviously knew that.

  6. bjza said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 11:40 am

    I grew up in Indiana and heard the word often enough from peers in elementary/middle school in the 80s. It had a meaning similar to the British one here, though I would add stimming and other compulsive behaviors to the definition. At least my circle stopped using the word as we reached maturity.

  7. bjza said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 11:50 am

    I'll add that I caught the word when I watched the video the first time and was immediately shaken. "Did he really just use that word?" Same reaction I might have had if he'd used "retarded" or "gay" in that way.

  8. Michael Johnson said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

    I'm 32, grew up in TX, this is the first inkling I ever had about a negative connotation for 'spaz.' If you'd have asked me I'd have said it was a made-up word intended to connote things like 'frazzled' and 'spaced (out)' (and indeed 'spaz out' is a verb). I won't use it again (if I can make sure to catch myself) but I think if people like Weird Al sincerely avow that they didn't know the word was offensive, that sounds pretty plausible to me.

  9. Brosef Stalin said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

    Never knew the cerebral palsy reference of spaz and spastic. Always knew it as someone bouncing off the walls, overly excited, and possibly arms and legs flailing due to some external stimulus or information. Am definitely didn't mean anything derogatory towards those suffering from cerebral palsy. It is unfortunate that he didn't know the connotation, and glad he openly apologized for the error.

  10. Sili said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 1:52 pm

    It was common in Denmark some 25 years ago when I grew up. Luckily it fell out of fashion, but I'm afraid it's making a comeback now. I don't know by what vector or if it's been completely removed from its origin for today's youth.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 3:22 pm

    In the UK there was at least at one point a rather famous pushback against the word-taboo by a member of the population whose sensitivities were supposedly being protected, although I don't know that it led to anything further. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spasticus_Autisticus (And the broader notion that word-taboos are as a general matter patronizing/condescending to their putative beneficiaries is obviously too radical to be taken seriously . . .)

    I use "fanny" as my default example of a word that's not the least bit taboo in the U.S. but historically rather different on the other side of the Atlantic . . .

  12. K said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 5:14 pm

    Before hearing Word Crimes, I'd never heard "spastic" or "spaz" used to refer to intelligence. I'd also never heard "spastic" used as a noun.

  13. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 5:30 pm

    As ever, the situation on the ground is more complex than 'fine in the US, offensive in Britain'.

    Down my way (growing up in eighties suburban North London), spaz and spastic were pretty much 'innocuous playground slang', to my ear anyway. Or at least so ubiquitous that all but a wisp of edginess had bled out of them. It's only quite recently that I found out lots of people find them highly offensive.

    Regarding Joey Deacon, that stuff was definitely done consciously in bad taste.

  14. J. Goard said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 6:19 pm

    To me (late 30s California), "spaz" is ridiculously ancient slang, which I picture my mom occasionally saying roughly where my sister or I would say "dork". When I heard about the hubbub online a few years ago, it basically introduced a brand new slur to my mind, for a group that had never been associated with a particular slur before.

  15. William Steed said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

    In case anyone is keeping track, the pejorisation of 'spaz' and 'spastic' is true in Australia (and, I believe, NZ) as well. In the 90s (and even into the 00s) the main non-government organisation for cerebral palsy and associated conditions was The Spastic Centre, which has since changed its name to the Cerebral Palsy Alliance (and in some areas, the Cerebral Palsy League). My freshman students (in Speech Pathology) have not, for the most part, heard 'spastic' as a medical term, and only know it in its pejorative sense.

  16. Alyssa said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 9:18 pm

    I'm American, mid-20s. I was vaguely aware of the connection between "spastic" and cerebral palsy, at least in the sense that spastic = "someone with involuntary muscle tics". I didn't know that it was once an official term for people with cerebral palsy.

    I consider it mildly offensive (or at least non-PC), about on par with something like "retarded." I don't use it myself but I won't correct others if they do.

  17. Stewart Nicol said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 9:55 pm

    It is worth mentioning Ian Dury's Spasticus Autisticus here, and viewing the clip of him discussing it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSo9OErEmM4

  18. Stigma Free Bergen County, NJ said,

    July 20, 2014 @ 10:44 pm

    When we finish this discussion may we move on to address the common practice of using words like CRAZY or INSANE to describe everything in the Universe ? I am so tired of these adjectives being used, as they perpetuate stigma against people with brain disorders, aka mental illnesses. This also needs to be called out in common usage. BTW, Paramus NJ was the first town in Bergen County,NJ to declare itself Stigma Free in terms of no tolerance towards mental health stigma and the words and actions that perpetuate it. It has caught on so fast that Bergen County NJ has become the FIRST county in the USA to declares itself stigma free. We hope to bring awareness to these kinds of issues and get ourselves to grow up LINGUISTICALLY!!!

    As a species, we need to stop using adjectives that describe some people's intense physical and mental suffering as ways to more generally express ourselves. It's offensive.

  19. Gavrielle said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 12:59 am

    William Steed is right: "spastic" and "spaz" are definitely pejorative in New Zealand too. I was shocked when I heard it in the song and am relieved that Al didn't use it deliberately in that sense.

  20. Mar Rojo said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 2:46 am

    I wonder if you could be found saying this, ADM:

    I wouldn't expect British Cerebral Palsy sufferers to avoid using the three-letter word for a cigarette in my company, so why should they expect me to avoid using "spaz" in theirs?

  21. Mar Rojo said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 2:49 am

    This all seems like a bit of "I am offended by the offence you take over my choice of words".

  22. rosie said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 3:00 am

    I'm not inclined to believe his apology. For one thing, he used not "spaz" but "spastic", so any claims that "spaz" is inoffensive are irrelevant. For another, the context shows that he is using "spastic" not as a meaningless word, but as an insult — otherwise, "you write like a spastic" would fail to be the insult it obviously is.

  23. Mar Rojo said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 3:08 am

    Is Al's "Word Crimes" intended for an international audience? If so….

  24. Mar Rojo said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 3:11 am

    Rosie has it right.

  25. Alan Palmer said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 4:19 am

    @ Mar Rojo: I wouldn't expect British Cerebral Palsy sufferers to avoid using the three-letter word for a cigarette in my company, so why should they expect me to avoid using "spaz" in theirs?

    The instances are not comparable. In America and in Britain 'spastic' is essentially the same word, but it differs in how it is interpreted. 'Fag' means two unrelated things depending on the side of the pond you are.

  26. GH said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 5:20 am

    @ rosie:

    The claim isn't that he didn't realize it was an insult, it's that he didn't realize it was in use as a slur for a disability.

    If we take him at his word (and enough people have said they also didn't know that it seems we should), it's as if he used the word "idiot" – generally seen as innocuous – only to discover that somewhere in the English-speaking world it's still taken as a derogatory term for the severely mentally handicapped.

  27. Mar Rojo said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 5:21 am

    If you think they're not comparable, tell it to ADM, who seems to think they are.

  28. Mar Rojo said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 5:25 am

    Al tries to have us believe he knows a lot about language usage. Odd that in this instance he claims ignorance. If people don't believe the jerk, it's no surprise.

  29. Mar Rojo said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 5:28 am

    How d"y'all feel about "grammar Nazi", when used in an international context?

  30. Ed said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 5:57 am

    "Spaz" and "spastic" were toothless schoolyard taunts when I grew up and that was the beginning and end of it. I'm sure it was the same way when Weird Al was in school. But he has always come across as a good guy, and it's not like him to make waves, so I guess he did the smart thing by just apologizing to whichever branch of The Permanently Offended had a problem with this.

    Another line in the song is "Try not to drool." Where is the outrage over this? Surely there are those with severely limited motor skills who do drool and cannot help it. So why is "spastic" worthy of outrage and "try not to drool" okay?

  31. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 6:28 am

    @Stigma Free Bergen County, NJ:

    "When we finish this discussion may we move on to address the common practice of using words like CRAZY or INSANE to describe everything in the Universe ?"

    And how about "WEIRD"?

  32. richardelguru said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 6:37 am

    As a little bit of confirmation of the tabooing of 'spaz' and 'spastic', I'm 67 (as an aside: Aaaargh!) born in the UK, but left in '79, and this is the first time I've been made aware of a problem. Up to now I've only heard it used by my US-born kids in the school-yard sense.

  33. richardelguru said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 6:39 am

    …missed "the dating of" before "tabooing" (Got carried away with the potential of coinage)

  34. L Gittlen said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 7:27 am

    A word can offend others when its true meaning is transparent to them, as we see in these comments about "spaz" and "insane." What about virtually every instance of profanity, obscenity, and vulgarity? People claim that they "don't mean anything" by these offensive terms, yet their meaning is completely clear and obvious. When will linguists object as strongly to the casual use of gross language?

  35. Brian T said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 7:37 am

    "I use 'fanny' as my default example of a word that's not the least bit taboo in the U.S. but historically rather different on the other side of the Atlantic."

    I use "bloody." I remember in the 1970s watching some version of "Candid Camera" that included a clip from the UK wherein a woman said something like "This [bleep!] place is going all to pieces," and my mom said "She probably said 'bloody.' You're not allowed to say 'bloody' on the air in England." Is/was that true? Don't know how my mom would have known that to be the case.

  36. JRH said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 8:36 am

    For me (early 30s American), 'spaz' is just what Bill McNeal (Phil Hartman) always called Matthew (Andy Dick) on NewsRadio:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJA7DKp7gag&t=1m26s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjdqBFLUh_k&t=3m6s

    I never really thought about it, but I suppose that at the time I took it as old-timey slang for clumsy, a synonym for 'klutz'. (Is it still OK to say 'klutz'?)

  37. Mar Rojo said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 8:58 am

    Drooling in not the sole, potentially negative, act of any specific group of humans, Ed.

  38. gribley said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 9:02 am

    As with many others, I am familiar with "spaz" (n) and "spastic" (adj, but not n as far as I can recall) from school days, up through high school, in upstate NY in the 1970s-80s. I'd agree with Ed that it was "toothless" in that it had no clear reference for us, except that it was intended to insult. I don't think I had any inkling of the connection with CP until long after college. I suspect that most Americans would not consider it to be linked to CP or to be offensive; it's probably somewhere along the same level of analysis as "gyp". On the other hand, considering how often I hear "retard" and "fag" used as insults — and the former still in pop culture — I'm not putting much stock in Americans' sensitivity.

    The Brit comic Ben Elton addressed "spastic" in his novel "Gridlock". The writing is generally terrible, and the humor never quite rises to the Douglas Adams level, but he's got some great ideas. As I recall, the first couple chapters of the novel lead the reader through a dense and carefully-obscured garden path on the CP issue which is thought-provoking, if not subtle.

  39. gribley said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 9:06 am

    Brian T's comment on "bloody" reminds me of Twain's "The Awful German Language":

    I once heard a gentle and lovely old German lady say to a sweet young American girl: "The two languages are so alike — how pleasant that is; we say `Ach! Gott!' you say `Goddamn.'"

  40. Mar Rojo said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 9:08 am

    @Victor

    What's the problem with "WEIRD"?

  41. Sandy Nicholson said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 9:12 am

    In the UK, the charity best known for working with people with cerebral palsy was formerly called the Spastics Society, ‘spastic’ then being the normal word used for a person with the condition. The word regrettably became a playground insult in my childhood (in the ’70s) along with other ill-considered epithets like ‘mongol’ (a term once used to refer to people with Down’s Syndrome). In a general move towards avoidance of labelling people with conditions, the word ‘spastic’ fell out of use in the UK, at least in polite society, and the charity itself was renamed (somewhat opaquely) as Scope.

    To me, the word ‘spastic’ is just as unpleasant a term of abuse (whether to someone with cerebral palsy or not) as the term ‘nigger’, for instance. I wouldn’t use either, knowing that both are widely considered to be offensive. When I watched the Word Crimes video, I stopped it at the mention of the word, as I assumed (wrongly, as it happens) that the performer was simply a foul-mouthed bigot. It shouldn’t surprise me too much that the word’s usage is different on the other side of the Atlantic, given several other variations in taboo language between AmE and BrE. I was very impressed by Mr Jankovic’s swift apology on learning that he may have caused inadvertent offence.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 9:55 am

    @Mar Rojo

    What's the problem with "weird"?

    Overuse (I'm guilty of that myself) and stigmatization.

  43. KeithB said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 10:17 am

    Did John Lennon have to aplogize? In one of the short works in "A Spaniard in the Works", about a man with two heads, it ends with the memorable "[Your'e fired because] We can't have a cripple teaching our spastics to dance!"

  44. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 10:44 am

    It seems possible that "spastic" was more broadly used in the UK (in particular used more as a noun for a person with such-and-such condition rather than as an adjective describing the condition) and was thus set up for even more of a backlash. And I can't quite articulate it, but to my ear there's something a bit markedly British (or at least non-US) about the usage in "Mother doesn't go out anymore / Just sits at home and rolls her spastic eyes." (This from Joe Jackson's song "Sunday Papers," recorded '78 and released '79 before, I take it, the current taboo had really kicked in hard over there.) Maybe in the U.S. the word was used as a term of art by actual medical etc. specialists and simultaneously used as very loose slang in playground insults and similar informal adult contexts, but not used so much in the intermediate sense of a "polite" word used by non-specialists in a more general, formal but non-specialist context? E.g., despite the lack of the taboo, afaik there have not been renamings of U.S. non-profits, perhaps because "Spastic" is not a word a high-profile non-profit (i.e. one trying to attract attention and donations from the general public, not merely organizing conferences for academics) would have thought idiomatic for use in the organizational name to start with.

  45. Kali said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 12:16 pm

    In India, we still use "spastic" in the medical sense. For example, a relative of mine runs a school for spastic children, and it's called a "school of spastic children". When I hear young people in the US use the term as an insult, it sounds cruel and bigoted to me.

  46. KathrynM said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

    I grew up in the US–primarily upstate New York–in the 1950s and 1960s, have long recognized "spastic" as referring to people with neurological conditions that affect their ability to manage movement, and would absolutely never use it to refer to another person. Possibly I missed out on the "innocuous playground slang" thing; equally possibly, I think, a lot of what is considered innocuous playground slang by those who have never been or known a member of the group being derogated is not, in fact, innocuous.

  47. Breffni said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 12:54 pm

    Derogatory terms as used by children can have a force independent of their original meaning, a meaning which kids may not even know. I understood 'spastic' as a sneeringly contemptuous term long before I knew its original meaning. The same is true of the force of 'cunt' and 'fuck', which I knew (and experienced) as strong obscenities before I knew what they literally meant. I would guess that 'spastic' generally has a visceral impact in the UK / Ireland etc. – independently of its reference – that it apparently never did in the US, where it was apparently capable of being used casually and maybe even playfully.

    That's one reason why I don't buy Steven Pinker's contention (as I understand it) that taboos derive their force from the fields of experience they're rooted in. That's presumably true historically, but at the level of individual learning, the force of swear words derives from the tone and context in which they're uttered.

  48. Ed said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

    @Mar Rojo "Drooling in not the sole, potentially negative, act of any specific group of humans, Ed."

    So if, for some reason, the song had lyrics about a Jew being greedy or a Mexican being lazy, that wouldn't be offensive because those are not characteristics that are held only by one specific group of humans?

    No, "try not to drool" is as offensive as "spastic" because Al makes fun of those who drool and cannot help themselves due to an inability to wipe one's own mouth, by playing on the stereotype of stupid people being mouth breathers who, due to sheer stupidity, drool. As a smart person, I'm offended for the stupid people. If you're going to be offended by one thing in the song, you've got to dissect all the lyrics and find any potential problems with the rest of it, too. What about people who, due to their economic situation, or because they're alligators, were in fact raised in a sewer? Not funny, Al. Not funny.

  49. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

    Interestingly enough for Ed's point (which may or may not have been intended entirely seriously) the current de facto conventions of discourse in the U.S. at least seem to be that you can get in trouble if you mock people whose mental capacities are sufficiently non-standard or below-median that their condition (rightly or wrongly) gets pathologized and they get labeled as officially disabled, but what you might call the "ordinary not-so-bright" (like 1 or 2 standard deviations below median, making up collectively a substantial percentage of the population), as such, can be mocked with comparative impunity w/o any great risk of the mocker being labeled a bigot.

  50. seebs said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 3:20 pm

    I was in high school or so in the 80s, and I learned "spastic" as an insult for people who had poor motor control (and being autistic, I sometimes qualified). I thought it was in poor taste to use the mild-but-insulting word to refer to people who had an actual disability like cerebral palsy. I didn't realize that it started as a technical term and had migrated to being a general insult.

    I pretty much buy Al's assertion, because it's really easy to not notice usage differences, or not realize that there's a difference. You can read quite a lot of British schoolboy stories before realizing that "fagging for" a senior student doesn't mean what the US usage suggests. At least not always.

    So, yes, I think he thought it was an insult, but a general insult, not one that was specifically a slur that some people would regard as highly offensive rather than generically offensive. See the similar issues with "idiot".

    I note that I've had people call "dumb" an "ableist slur" when used in the sense of "stupid", but I've never seen much support for it, and the one person I know who cannot make speech sounds thinks this sounds, dare I say it, stupid. Or idiotic. Or possibly dumb.

  51. MaryKaye said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

    It goes like this:

    If you are not a member of group A, but I call you a member of group A with obvious intent to insult you, I'm expressing two things:

    (1) I think you're contemptible
    (2) I think members of A are contemptible

    I believe it's #2 that people are objecting to here. It would be better to insult the person directly without reinforcing ugly stereotypes about some other group. It's the same reason I react so negatively to any insult of a man that amounts to saying he's like a woman: it's packaged up with the implication that being like a woman is contemptible.

  52. Ø said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

    My memory of the schoolyard slang words "spaz" and "spastic" from my childhood (in the 60's, in the US), is that they were not merely insulting — they were ways of taunting someone for being (at least in the moment) clumsy. On the other hand I don't believe the children using the word knew that "spastic" was also used in a neutral way to refer to a medical condition. It wasn't until years later that I learned that in the UK it was so used. My first reaction, I think, were "Oh, that's where the childhood taunt came from" and "We could never call people with CP spastics in the US, because the term has been skunked by children's slang".

  53. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

    I agree that many insults fit the pattern MaryKaye describes, but, for example, insulting someone who has (the insulter believes) overlooked something obvious by calling him "blind" when the insultee is in fact sighted does not necessarily imply a belief that actual blind people are contemptible, and might be fully consistent with having compassion, maybe even the good kind that hasn't shaded over into patronizing condescension, for actual blind people. (It is possible that actual blind people might nonetheless take offense at this genre of insults; that's a different question. And I suppose it does strongly imply that actual blindness is an objective misfortune rather than a neutral trait.) Somewhat differently, using "mannish" as a pejorative when referring to a female does not necessarily imply a view that men qua men are contemptible.

  54. Mar Rojo said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 5:30 pm

    Most of this seems to be a case of "We Americans will not be told what we can or cannot say even in international contexts". Nothing new, imo.

  55. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 6:45 pm

    @Mar Rojo – well, perhaps one interesting point is the way in which the internet can make things an "international context" whether the speaker/writer/poster intended it or not. The popular-music business obviously operates on a worldwide basis, but a quick google tends to confirm my vague impression that Weird Al's historical commercial success has been primarily concentrated in the US market; if he'd historically shifted a lot of units in the UK market he might run things by someone with local knowledge pre-release (not necessarily to avoid giving offense; more to make sure the jokes would still work), but if he isn't he probably wouldn't.

  56. Levantine said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

    Brian T, "bloody" is pretty mild in British English, and it's been said on TV since at least the '70s.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Breffni's point. All this arguing over whether the word qualifies as offensive or not based on one's knowledge of its meaning seems misguided to me. People should respect the sensibilities of their listeners and adjust their lexicon accordingly. "Coloured" is an acceptable way of describing certain people in South Africa, but you wouldn't use it without causing offence elsewhere in the anglophone world. And "twat" used to sound quite innocent to my British ears until I moved to the USA in my mid-twenties and found out how offensive it was to Americans (and, needless to say, I've never used it since). The fact is, an insult such as "drooling idiot" is not likely to be understood as referring to a particular group of disabled people, whereas "spastic", at least among many anglophones, is.

  57. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 7:07 pm

    @seebs – that's a good example of how whether due to euphemism treadmill or otherwise "dumb" has so thoroughly been driven out of use as a synonym for "mute" (at least in AmEng) that using it as a pejorative does not (outside of perhaps a few eccentric circles) suggest that one is insensitive to the mute. Indeed, the shift has been so complete that it makes certain traditional phrases of cultural significance (e.g. "as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth") opaque and puzzling to the modern reader. Similarly, I don't think using "lame" to mean "uncool" has given rise to much controversy (i.e. it is not widely claimed to be offensive to the disabled), because using "lame" to describe human beings with certain sorts of impaired mobility has largely gone out of use (although we still use it freely for horses).

  58. Alex said,

    July 21, 2014 @ 10:00 pm

    I'm really glad I can learn from someone else's mistake on this one, because I definitely use the word "spastic." Growing up in the 80's, I had an uncle with severe cerebral palsy, which was described as spastic type CP to distinguish it from other types. All of his muscles were permanently rigid. From childhood, I know that I have used this word to describe my uncle– for example to explain why my grandfather designed special pants (trousers for you Brits) for him, because he couldn't bend his legs to put on pants. It has never once occurred to me that people might think I am calling my uncle a derogatory name when I describe him as "spastic."

    But it's not just about a speaker's intent– it's also about how other people are using the word, and what listeners hear based on that. So, like "retarded," another word I was taught to use in a neutral way, it looks like "spastic" needs to be retired from my vocabulary.

  59. Lars said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 1:38 am

    Two Scandinavian notes:

    In Denmark where I grew up (born 1960), spasser (for spastiker, someone with spastisk lammelse) was the worst general insult we knew, but it was also used more specifically to denote someone who behaved clumsily. None the less, to this day the Danish association for sufferers proudly bears the name Spastikerforeningen.

    In Sweden, where kids of mine were recently in primary school, there is a tendency for serious diseases to be mentioned by their acronyms; MS for multiple sclerosis and CP for cerebral paresis, for instance. As a bleaching strategy this has totally failed: CP spelled out is now the gravest schoolyard taunt.

  60. Rubrick said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 3:18 am

    While we are on the subject of questionable lines in this particular song, can anyone elucidate the origin of "mouth-breather" as slang for a person of low intelligence? I've never understood what the connection there is supposed to be. I happen to be a moderate mouth-breather myself, but I don't find the term offensive so much as baffling.

  61. Mar Rojo said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 3:34 am

    "J.W. Brewer,

    Weird Al is well aware of just where the majority of his audience for his grammar songs and videos is. He knows only too well that they mostly end up on Facebook grammar-gripe pages, such as Grammarly, for whom he has just done an interview, and You Tube. He knows his (amateur) opinions will be sucked up and devoured by peevers and pedants internationally.

  62. Mar Rojo said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 3:45 am

    So what exactly does Al mean by "'Cause you write like a spastic", and why didn't he use "a spastic person"?

  63. Vanya said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 7:07 am

    @ Mar Rojo – because American slang is "spastic", never "spastic person". To most of us USAers of my generation, it is simply an adjective meaning "clumsy, uncoordinated". It sounds to me like Al meant the line to sound like a childhood schoolyard taunt, it is funnier that way.

  64. Darkwhite said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 7:57 am

    Levantine:
    There are two important principles at work here. You mention one, which is to keep in mind that we must make an effort to choose our words so we're not misunderstood. This is of course important, but even the most sensible person will inevitable slip up on occasion.

    The second principle – in my opinion the more important one – is that of charitable interpretation – conversation always breaks down when people stop giving each other the benefit of doubt: 'Do you know what time it is?' – 'Yes.', etcetera.

    Is it a reasonable interpretation, that Al Yankovic wants to put down and/or offend a particular group of disabled people? Do we need to get confrontational and demand apologies? Perhaps, if we think the word 'spastic' has some sort of magical power to hurt people, just like how 'damn' somhow used to corrupt people's souls some hundred years ago.

    Finally, I cannot for the life of me understand how 'spastic' is any worse than 'drooling idiot'. By your logic, Rainman' must be the gravest thinkable insult, singling out not even a group of disabled people, but Kim Peek's as an individual.

  65. Sandy Nicholson said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 8:30 am

    @Darkwhite: Having never heard of Al Jankovic previously, I think it was reasonable, if not particularly charitable, for me to suppose that he was out to cause offence (probably not to people with cerebral palsy, but more likely to those who would be shocked by his use of language). Of course, by his swift apology, he clarified that that had never been his intention.

    I don’t think ‘spastic’ has any magical power to hurt, but words, by their associations and the mental processes they set in train, can actually hurt people, whether we intend them to or not. (Naturally, though, we can’t be alert to every possible connotation of a word in every culture.) Think of another offensive word – I suggested ‘nigger’ earlier as having roughly the same emotional force for me. Would you consider it OK to call someone a ‘nigger’? I would guess not, though clearly the word has no magical power to hurt people.

  66. Nathan said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 8:49 am

    I would guess there are very few people left who think it's OK to call someone a "nigger" (in-group exceptions aside). I think that change is pretty complete through the Anglosphere. The whole reason we're talking about this subject is that the similar change for "spastic", while near-total in, say, the UK, is still far from universal. It hadn't reached Weird Al's consciousness yet, and he's pretty hip. A lot of America has yet to hear about it.

  67. Sandy Nicholson said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 9:22 am

    @Nathan: My intention was simply to illustrate to @Darkwhite that irrespective of his personal feelings about the word ‘spastic’ (no worse than ‘drooling idiot’), there are nevertheless some parts of the world (such as the UK) where it is far more emotionally charged. It may be that the word never attains that status in the US (particularly if any clinical use of the term is off the radar, as it seems to be).

    P.S. I’ve just realised that I’ve consistently spelt Weird Al’s surname as ‘Jankovic’ rather than ‘Yankovic’. Don’t know why. (I’m probably pronouncing his name incorrectly to myself too.) No offence intended. :o)

  68. Sam Playle said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 9:53 am

    My jaw hit the floor when I heard this line from the usually-family-friendly Weird Al; I was glad to learn that he was simply unfamiliar of the meaning for many English speakers and that he apologized. I certainly don't think we're being easily offended as some are arguing; for us it's a fairly unambiguous (now derogatory) term for someone with CP and it's unsurprising that we're shocked to hear it used as an insult in a pop song.

    As Breffni said, children can learn insults with no idea of their generally-understood meaning simply by imitation, and as a pupil in Britain in the 1990s that was certainly how I came to learn the word "spastic" (and pretty-much all insults seem "innocuous" to a schoolchild until you let them slip out in front of a shocked adult).

    There are still British English speakers who use the noun "spastic" as the normal word for a person with CP (to be precise, my 90-year-old grandmother from London who recently told me about a 'spastic' relative of mine), certainly unaware of the derogatory connotations the word has gained.

  69. WIll Thomas said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 10:12 am

    Wasn't there a sitcom character called 'Spaz'–thirty or forty years ago; I go back a ways.

  70. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 10:35 am

    Although we've gotten to approximately the same point now, the current strength of the taboo against the n-word developed substantially later in the UK than it did in at least the "polite society" subsets of the US, as was I think discussed in some depth in a comment thread a few months ago. So e.g. an Agatha Christie novel first published in 1939 needed even back then to be retitled for the U.S. market: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Little_Niggers Probably a good thing for Christie that she didn't just post a preview of the novel (with its British title) on the internet where it would be equally accessible for downloading on both sides of the Atlantic . . .

    When I was a boy it was I think widely understood that standards of what was or was not within the boundaries of acceptable taste for a given genre of entertainment varied by country and that e.g. Monty Python and Benny Hill (or Are You Being Served, although I never saw that until decades later) could "get away" with a few things that a major-network tv comedy in the US of the same era could not, and that accordingly if you were someone who would be offended by seeing something that you would expect Standards and Practices to have kept off US network tv of the era you ought not to watch exotic imported programming and had no one but yourself to blame if you went ahead and watched it anyway.

  71. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 11:07 am

    @Will: See my 2006 post. You may be thinking of either "Chaz the Spaz" from SNL's "Nerds" sketch or "Spaz" from the movie "Meatballs."

  72. Levantine said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 12:00 pm

    Darkwhite, my comment made no reference to Al Yankovic. I agree that we should give people the benefit of the doubt, and his apology makes clear that he didn't realise the potential of the word to offend (it's precisely because people can make such linguistic slip-ups that I mentioned my own ignorance concerning the word "twat"). My criticism was directed at those who, having learnt that they have said something offensive to a large number of people, refuse to learn from their mistake.

    This brings me to your final point. It's silly and disingenuous to say that you can't see the difference between "spastic" and "drooling idiot". One is widely perceived as an insult referring to a specific set of people, the other is not. It really is that simple. Does it make sense that only one of these terms should be stigmatised? Perhaps not, but that's the nature of the English language. By your logic, I could insist that "negro" is an acceptable word to use since it means nothing more than "black". This makes me think back to the post we had recently about "Oriental". Again, there is no logical reason that this word should be offensive if "Asian" and "Eastern" are not, but to pretend that there is no difference between how these terms are understood is to be stubborn and insensitive for the sake of it.

  73. Ed Cormany said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 12:20 pm

    Growing up in the Midwest US in the 1990s, I too got the impression that 'spastic' and 'spaz' were mild playground insults…they would draw attention from an adult about as much as 'weirdo' might. The thing that I noticed about Weird Al's usage is that 'spastic' is used in a context where it is unambiguously a noun, which sounds almost ungrammatical to me. In my playground days, 'spastic' was exclusively an adjective and 'spaz' a noun or perhaps a verb. Of course, in the context of this discussion, the markedness I noticed serves as the flag that it is an epithet, and a particularly unkind one in the view of many. But, for linguists looking to tease apart these distinctions, this is an important fact: it may not be that I didn't know a variation in meaning of a single word ('spastic' as noun) but that I did not even have that word in my lexicon…only historically related ones.

    As an adult, I'm not in the habit of hurling insults, so 'spaz' is gone from my vocabulary. 'Spastic' is probably still kicking around, still exclusively as an adjective. I wonder how other people gauge this use, especially when applied to objects or abstract concepts (e.g., "a song with a spastic beat") rather than people? My closest comparison, with a similar meaning, frequency, and distribution, would be something like 'stuttering', which I think—but correct me if i'm wrong—could be applied to all sorts of mechanical processes or sounds without causing offense to people with that particular speech impediment.

  74. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

    The easy lesson to be drawn is that one should be very careful about using "spastic" if addressing an audience e.g. British or Australian. But it also seems that one need not, at present, be so cautious if addressing an audience composed exclusively of e.g. Americans or Indians. The difficulty is that the internet makes it difficult to know in advance exactly what the ultimate audience may be. Within the English-speaking world, the spastic-taboo countries are, to be blunt, significantly less populous (maybe dramatically-less-so, depending on how you weight India) than the spastic-not-so-taboo countries. How high a likely percentage of the anticipated audience for a particular thing should the British/Australian contingent be before good manners require their local taboos to be taken into account? Weird Al, of course, is not dealing merely with random members of the public but with potential paying customers for his products, so it may be highly rational for commercial reasons for him to give significant weight to the concerns of a fairly small percentage of the global audience even if good manners, as such, would not so require.

    In the example he gave, Levantine changed his own practice with regard to a particular word after he had physically relocated to the U.S., but it's less clear to me that if he had become a prominent internet personality while still resident in the U.K. that he ought to have done the same thing simply because he became aware that a meaningful portion of his readership was American and took the word as more strongly taboo than his British readers did. I certainly wouldn't begrudge him the right to change his usage to avoid giving offense or being misunderstood, but also wouldn't begrudge him the right to feel that Americans who voluntarily choose to read the words of a British writer are themselves obligated by good manners to adjust their expectations to conform to British norms of propriety rather than it being the writer's obligation (as a matter of manners, rather than commercial profit-seeking) to conform to American norms.

    That said, I fully agree with Levantine that the strong present-day taboo-ness of "spastic" in particular geographical varieties of English is what it is and the lack-of-tabooness of some other expression which "logically" ought to be treated the same is neither here nor there in deciding how one ought to behave in light of that actually-existing taboo.

  75. Darkwhite said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    S. Nicholson:
    'Nigger', outside of its in-group use, has become so exclusively offensive that it's hardly comparable. That said, if some ESL-student had picked up 'nigger' from hip-hop music or Samuel L. Jackson movies, I wouldn't be in any rush to take offence. I find circumlocutions such as 'the n-word' and editing the word out of old texts (see Brewer's example with Ten Little Niggers) both absurd and counterproductive. I wish we could focus our indignation on genuine racism and be a little less obsessive about words which perhaps sort of maybe signals it.

    Levantine:
    That people can cause non-trivial offence by using a taboo word accidentally is exactly why I think the pendulum has swung too far. Why are we so critical of Yankovic' failure to cross-check whether spastic might be more offensive to other peopl than he realized, while we have such a wealth of patience for people who have managed to take offence where none was intended, primarily over a US-UK difference in connotations?

    I have no trouble understanding that you and others instinctively find 'spastic' more offensive than 'drooling idiot', primarily because of its taboo status (?), but I thought the point of these taboos was to show respect towards disadvantaged people? Would it have been more okay if he made a joke about writing like a Parkinson's patient instead?

    -

    I don't particularly have a problem with getting rid of 'nigger', as some sort of symbolic stand against racism, or of 'spastic' as a gesture of respect towards the disabled. However, the lexicon of magically offensive words is currently so absurd and culturally idiomatic that it is getting to the point where we are navigating a minefield and apologizing for getting blown up.

    ref: Washington Redskins, Oriental, pronouns for transgender people, etc.

  76. Levantine said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 3:27 pm

    Darkwhite, perhaps you should reread my earlier comments. As I've already indicated, I am in no way critical of Yankovic or anyone else who unwittingly uses a term that causes others offence. I am critical only of those who continue to use such terms after they know better.

    Your question regarding Parkinson's Disease doesn't make much sense to me. Sufferers of this disease are understood to be a particular group of people who share a particular disability, whereas drooling idiots are not. In any case, let me reiterate my view (which J. W. Brewer has already reformulated very well): there is no point trying to argue for a logical or consistent approach to determining a word's level of offensiveness. If a term is considered objectionable by a large number of people, then those who use that term are obliged to think about whether they wish to continue doing so. Ultimately, it's up to each speaker to take responsibility for his or her choices. But to use the excuse that a word cannot be called offensive if others like it are deemed acceptable is to ignore the way that languages work and evolve.

  77. Alexandra said,

    July 22, 2014 @ 11:29 pm

    As an American with the terms spaz, spastic, and spazzing out a part of the normal vernacular…this is actually enlightening. I had no idea that those terms were actually referencing cerebral palsy in a derogatory way. Heck, as far as our definitions are concerned those words/phrase means the erratic behavior and staccato movements of someone under a great amount of stress (usually work related).
    I'm glad to know that this is actually a derogatory slur, at least so I can stop using it.

  78. Darkwhite said,

    July 23, 2014 @ 7:17 am

    Levantine:
    I probably mix up more general comments with direct replies to you in my posts. I'm sorry if I wind up pinning opinions you don't hold on you. It's nice that we have found some common ground.

    I still don't understand why slurs are automatically worse, when based on well-defined groups (spastic) than loosely defined such (drooling idiots), but there doesn't seem to be any more headway down that path. It's not that I can't accept the distinction between these at face value, I just hoped to reach some sort of understanding of the underlying why.

    Finally, I don't entirely agree that we ought to respect, defend and maintain counterproductive taboos. While I do recommend that people, for their own sake, exercise caution with inflammatory words, it's worth keeping in mind that words can also lose their taboo status when people realize there's nothing inherently offensive about them and lay off an eagerness to feel insulted – the textbook example is probably gay (though there's a much larger story to it).

    The other direction, of pandering perhaps too much to people's sensibilities, leads towards the famous euphemism treadmill, which hardly does anybody any favors.

  79. Brett Dunbar said,

    July 23, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

    There's a Serbian former world number one tennis player and US open runner up Jelena Jankovic, you might be thinking of her.

  80. Mar Rojo said,

    July 25, 2014 @ 9:27 am

    How do you all stand on teaching the attitude that people are moronic because they don't speak or write like you?

  81. Mar Rojo said,

    July 25, 2014 @ 9:36 am

    Stan Carey says it all, imo:

    The video can legitimately be called a viral sensation, having quickly hurtled past 10 million views on YouTube. I’d love to tell you I enjoyed it, but mostly I winced. The wordplay is ingenious, and the production is slick, but the message – and there is a message, parody or not – spoils it: it’s a hotchpotch of ill-informed prescriptivism, a mean-spirited rant about trivial linguistic errors, non-errors, and non-standard usages traditionally decried by hobbyist peevers.

  82. Mar Rojo said,

    July 25, 2014 @ 9:50 am

    http://ninagcomedian.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/the-grammar-shaming-and-weird-als-word-crimes/

  83. Yosemite Semite said,

    July 26, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

    @Levantine

    On "bloody." Both of my Spanish-English lexicons try to give some sense of usage for words where there's a likelihood to give a translation an offensive gloss. Both mark "bloody" as a word that is likely to give offense in English, one with the word marked as a vulgarismo, and the other with the dreaded three asterisks, which the lexicon says "means 'Danger!' Such words are liable to offend in any situation, and therefore are to be avoided by the non-native speaker." ("significa ¡Ojo! El usuario no nativo deberá poder reconocer estas palabras o giros, pero dado su carácter obsceno o ofensivo se guardará de emplearlos en la mayor parte de los contextos sociales.") Similarly, my German-English lexicon marks it as vulgar. That was my understanding long before I chanced across the notations in the translations in these lexicons. I'm born and bred in the US, so undoubtedly I don't pick up on the contextual nuance that the more finely tuned sensibility of a native speaker in the UK might.

  84. Levantine said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 3:52 am

    Yosemite Semite, I'm afraid your dictionaries are misleading and/or outdated. "Bloody" is roughly equivalent in offensiveness to "damn" in American English. Yes, you wouldn't necessarily expect to hear kids saying it, but few are likely to be offended by such sentences as "That bloody/damn dog woke me up again with its barking." (There are, of course, the euphemistic substitutes "bleeding" and "dang/darn" for the more polite among us.) In Australian English, "bloody" is so common as to be unremarkable.

    As the Wikipedia entry on "Bloody" notes, the phrase "bloody hell" even occurs in the Harry Potter films: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloody

  85. Jim said,

    July 28, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

    To all the people who think that the song is a ridiculously overblown bit of proscriptivist nonsense – it is. This song is satire. This album is satire. The artist who made it is a satirist. It's what he does for a living. If you get bothered by how on-point the satire is then, well, he's done his job.

    On the subject of "spastic," the first time I ran into the notion that "spastic" was 1. really offensive and 2. a noun was when reading Grant Morrison's remarkable graphic novel, "Arkham Asylum." It was always a minor schoolyard taunt to me, albeit an infrequently used one. Somewhat ironically, I most often heard it being used by a fellow student who was a consummate athlete, and in reference to less athletic students. He had epilepsy that responded poorly to medication..

  86. Ice said,

    September 3, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

    Spaz, Spazzing out, and to a lesser extent Spastic are all innocous terms in Canada/US (at least parts I've lived). The general meaning is simply "Used to describe someone/something that is erratic in motion, highly exaggerated. Overdramatic Reaction (Spazz-out). Flipping out. snapping from stress. Or the person who displays such attributes."

    It's so innocuous, there are several children's characters in literature called Spaz that I have come across;

    I even know someone who generally goes by the given name Spaz. And I don't know anyone who has commented on the name; nor Have I noticed any mumbling/looks when yelling for his attention at the mall for instance or mentioning his name in general. It's tone and context always comes off as a name. "Have you seen Spaz around?"

  87. Jenwa Lapti said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 2:09 am

    Linguistic correctness = bad
    Political correctiness = good
    simple

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment